Pieces of aeroplane sprayed across the water in front of them, but only Arlo saw the distinct shapes of people striking the sea’s surface. The beach was the thin fringe of a wide bay. At their backs, the drastic slope of the mountains dove into the ground. The town, just four streets deep, was squeezed tight between the mountainside and the sandy beach. The double blades of beach and town pinched off at the end of the bay: a headland the shape of a fist. It punched the passenger jet out of the sky, those still lounging on the beach at dusk gazed upon the innards. In the local tongue the name of the peak was “the boxer”. The name of the town was simply “beach”, which gave all but the least inquisitive holidaymakers the sense they were being brushed off and given bare essentials to navigate only to the spots where the locals could tolerate them.
The boom rippled its way across the water. Heads snapped to attention to take in the shape of a plane unmaking itself. The three girls lay on deck chairs facing the sea while the explosion fanned out in front of them. Arlo and Mary had already been looking out to see while Bea used the shade of the parasol to tap away at emails. A section of the fuselage peeled open and spewed three rag doll silhouettes. Mary saw something like a seed pod, pips ejected into the moist wind. Arlo saw nothing but people hitting the sea. Mary saw a plume of brightly coloured luggage drop clear of the rest of the wreck and glint in the golden sun. It took Bea’s pupils valuable milliseconds to contract as they lifted from her phone to take in the glare. She saw only plumes of water erupting from the surface and cracking the sunset’s dazzling reflection.
When machines spray out limp bodies, people become stupid. They wander around. They respectfully avert their eyes, though they badly want to look. Somebody assumes the role of breaking the leaden silence with an impressive scream. It is never clear from whom the scream came. Bea managed to draw the group’s roles to a close as the first sirens wailed their way along the crescent town. To what end? To bag up the passengers and arrest the mountain. “We should get out of the way.”, she said: towel already folded over arm, phone in hand, eyes crazed and bloodshot, though not wet.
The next morning, Mary sat at the table and ate a tomato with a pocket knife. One-by-one they went out to the garden to shower the sticky night’s fear off their bodies. Bea went first. The shower was a hosepipe terminated by a sprinkler head at the top of the garden, made roughly private by dense, live bamboo. The water had warmed in the hose through the day and come out of the sprinkler almost hot. The shower was the only place her emails weren’t and she lingered there.
On the beach, she watched the plumes of water erupting from the sea then heard the scream. The meaning clicked into place. She was buckled into an airplane seat, two broken legs, quickly sinking into the water. She thought about the passengers, dressed all wrong for a swim. She pictured dress shoes treading water. She looked down the deckchair at the body in her swimsuit and suddenly felt under-dressed for the scene herself.
By the time she pulled her towel off the low limb of an orange tree, Bea was shivering. Mosquitoes followed her through the door and into the kitchen-diner. She wondered if they could smell her period. Mary could. She went out to the garden next, thinking sisterly thoughts about this tightly wound girl with the important job until the cold water hit her chest. Her brain filled with static for a second, then a fizz of pleasure washed over her skin.
The central kitchen gave onto four rooms, three closed bedroom doors. At the table, Arlo listened as Bea poured three glasses of mineral water. Her eyes were fixed on the doorway to the unoccupied room with the un-used towel still folded at the foot of the bed. Aiden, the boy who rescued her from social obscurity in second year with his noise and colour and sweaty disco club nights, had been called away. He had left her alone with these other girls he’d collected in parts of his life that had nothing to do with her. It was Arlo’s turn to shower.
She hadn’t noticed him at first, but as she scrubbed the tomato skin from under her thumb nail she saw the boy’s tan shoulder blades through the bamboo as he picked lemons. She realised she had walked out of the guest apartment wrapped in only her towel and, unthinking, unwound it in the open to scrub her face. She stayed longer than the cold water invited, watching him reach up to grip the fruit, pluck, and drop them into a pink plastic laundry basket. His hair was shaved short; she could see the full shape of his ears from behind, the shapes moving in his neck, a hint of deltoid stretching and sliding. He must have been about eighteen.
She saw him turn in her direction, searching for lemons. His chin was raised, foreshortening his jaw, cheeks, brow. His eyes followed the lemon from the tree, into his hand, into the basket. They came back up and settled on Arlo. It was hard to know what he could see of her; she couldn’t know how to arrange herself behind the dappled coverage of fruit trees and bamboo.
Charlotte, at the after-party of a Philosophy society social in student accommodation in Clerkenwell. In the kitchen, a boy from the course who liked her little black dress was leaning in close. Other bodies pressed close but somehow they were alone. Her heart pumped thickly. Her mouth parted just slightly for his— but their foreheads banged together, shock and confusion and quickly, the flush of embarrassment. He had a bottle of supermarket gin in his hand that he’d been reaching for. He laughed first with shock, too loud, then a kinder look that was far more devastating. She withdrew and asked cups of white wine to tell her a different story about herself. The wine soon came back up. The girl holding her hair back didn’t know her name and couldn’t find anybody who did. She was so fragile then; that was all it took to blow apart completely. Charlotte would never again be left outstretched and humiliated. She would carve off the most likely parts of herself. Thus she became Arlo. Not enough people knew Charlotte for the change to be remarked upon. She left obtuse angles: angles not leaning into the mouths she wanted but instead away, to be chased. Cruelly, most had not understood their role in this game, and let her alone.
The boy in the lemon trees smirked, acknowledging himself but showing no intention to pull away. She betrayed herself, a smirk back. A shiver ran up her neck and finally she couldn’t stand the cold water any longer. She reached for her towel and the boy scooped up his basket and headed inside.
In the street below, the boy’s hand found purchase on a reassuringly chunky cable. He had his face pressed up against the front of the cabinet. There was something veterinarian in how his arm looped under and up the back. He pulled hard.
The internet connection to the street was severed. Bea’s document dropped into a grey, hesitant state. She refreshed, gone. Serpentine fear crawled up the recess of her spine for a moment. She crushed it and stood up from the bed so sharply that spots swam in front of her eyes. She padded to the kitchen and poured out three glasses of mineral water. Still facing the fridge. “Internet working for you?”, she asked the goat’s cheese drying out on the top shelf. Mary was lounging on the sofa with a book she’d fished from the between the scraps of recipes cut out of magazines and ceramic curios on sideboard. It was a bestiary of the reptiles on the island with large, glossy pages. She could understand most of it, but it was teaching her the local names for specific kinds of geckos and so on. She read the word for ‘pearlescent’, as in scales. Her phone was lying with an empty battery in her rucksack in the wicker wardrobe in ‘the small room’. It had been there since the plane took off. She told a full colour rendering of a lizard that she didn’t know. She gave Bea a sympathetic look, but the lawyer’s eyes were praying to the cracked plaster ceiling. She gulped down her water and her lips drafted apologetic explanatory emails.
“Mary would like us to know she is unplugged.”
Arlo emerged for the first time that day dressed as a tennis player. Her white cap shaded her slack expression from the weak kitchen bulb and what light washed in through the small single window. A Mexico City Olympics t-shirt (child’s size medium) tucked into white, pleated skirt pulled high to maximise distance to top of white sock portending mint condition white Reebok Classic.
Moments earlier she had been sat stiff on her bed, refreshing a news article about the plane crash. Her first refresh had rewarded her by replacing the thin two paragraph story based on wire copy with something less ‘Breaking’ and more ‘Developing’. Sole airport on the island closed for time being. Now air crash investigators and relevant agency representatives on site. Since then, pawing at the screen had yielded nothing new. She had just begun to reach for a familiar distraction (private browser window, looping clips of bodies fucking one another made grainy black and white) when the connection dropped. The warmth oozed out of her skin quickly while she listened to the two in the kitchen through the door. They had only been on the island a few days but she could picture the kitchen scene’s blocking. She presented herself in the doorway to the dark (but blissfully cool) kitchen-diner-lounge and saw them stood perfectly on their marks.
Mary was wearing jean shorts and a huge yellow t-shirt, which on the front said “Just stop oil”. When she rose from the sofa to accept Bea’s glass of water, Arlo saw the block print all the way down the back: ‘Are you terrified about what happens to your loved ones when the climate crisis hits?’ The final word hung somewhere around the knees until Mary reached under it and hitched it up to scratch a mosquito bite on her lower back. Bea found something simian in the movement.
She lay down on the sofa staring at the ceiling as she played clips of the lemon boy’s skinny back to drown out the frozen image of a body striking the water.
“Will you come to the cove with me? We haven’t used the snorkels yet.”
Mary was watching Bea, whose document-deprived eyes were miming the act of reading the ingredients of a pre-packaged soup from the fridge over and over again. Her attempt to derail the collapse in Bea took a moment to find its mark, then Bea’s eyes lifted off the soup and landed on a point a few hundred yards behind Mary’s head.
“I’m sure they will have closed off the beaches. They won’t want people swimming around anywhere near the site. I don’t want to be swimming around anywhere near the site.”
Before Bea could load another salvo of reasons, Mary pulled closer and tried to find a way into Bea’s distant eye line. She summoned a view of the island from above, the swirls of the ocean currents cascading off the edges. The cove was thoroughly upstream and around the corner from the town that had rapidly filled with emergency vehicles, pop-up marquees, and men with rubber gloves and clipboards.
“The cove is protected from all that by the headland. I found an easier way down to the water too. Maybe the internet will be back when we come back. A watched pot never boils.”
The easier route was a goat track. Mary had already made the perilous scramble to dip her hands and face in the sea. On her first day on the island, she came to the cove alone while the others unfurled into their small living quarters. Aiden had messaged the group chat three hours before the flight in urgent but veiled terms to tell them he wasn’t going to be joining them. The three girls were already on their own ways to the airport. Momentum carried them to see through the plans without their common link.
Mary could picture Bea in a glass and steel eyrie, being chased around by angry people in suits like a dove harried by dogs. Aiden was not replying Bea’s messages, worrying that the person who booked the apartment would not be there to announce them. Things were unacceptably askew. The taxi crackled to a stop beside an orange tree.
Mary had greeted their host, an island woman, in her own language and she began bubbling over. These sad skinny women gave her little to hold onto but this wiry one with the boy’s haircut was kind. She asked about the fish and coral in her first breaths. She filled the eager girl’s hands with the snorkelling gear. They used to swim with the shoals of iridescent fish each morning; their boy swam deep and fast like an eel. Heart disease carried off her boar husband and puberty made the boy sulky, less inclined to wake her up at first light begging for the sea. Mary accepted the opportunity gladly. The woman showed them up the stairs into their place and the boy listened to them creak across the floorboards overhead.
When it was all done, Mary dropped her backpack down at the foot of the bed and went straight out to touch the sea with her body. *
Now Mary wanted to empty her life of shredded metal and burning fuel and rolling news coverage. She wanted to fill it once again with waving blues and greens. Sweeping aside excuses and Bea’s anxious administrative spasms, she carried everything they needed in her backpack: three towels, a couple of shirts to warm up in, sun cream, three sets of goggles and snorkels.
Since she was a sobbing toddler digging at the bottom of the garden, she’d been accused of running off to talk to plants when the human stuff got hard. She didn’t care. On this side of the island the land met the sea with seventy foot cliffs. Their cove was a single notch carved out, leaving steep but not vertical slopes and at the water line: a small pebble beach enclosed on all sides. With the towels rolled out they could sit and look at the blank horizon of the sea with limestone protecting them on both sides. When Mary handed out the goggles, Bea doffed her wide-brimmed sun hat and started fitting, adjusting straps. Arlo declined with a thin wince and turned back down to her book.
She watched them wade up to their waists then dive under the water from her perch on the towel. Her eyes went down to her book but bounced right back up. When the two snorkels were a good distance out, she picked her way over the pebbles and into the shallows, which were calm and warmed by the late morning sun. She lay on her back, floated, and looked at the sun that burned through her eyelids in fuzzy pink and yellow. She tried to nullify her thoughts. A few moments passed and her mind was no quieter. The same as ever, it all came at once: look books, the rabid character assassinations that flew between intellectuals that were key millimetres apart on the issues, things one is supposed to say about the issues, the scope of things one ought not say about the issues but in saying makes one rakishly contrary and not simply stupid, fragments of Italian cinema, memes, which drugs it is possible to look sexy whilst taking and how.
She returned to the towel, and to her book: a book on good housekeeping from the 1890s. The level of the irony with which she was reading the book was not clear, even to herself. Before long she was cold in the shadow of the cliff sides and she pulled a shirt from Mary’s hiking backpack. Just stop oil. It swallowed her and before she could squash the sentimentality she saw herself at age five falling asleep on the sofa, in the flickering purple light of cartoons, wearing her father’s giant t-shirt as a nightgown.
She hurled a pebble into the sea to shatter the thought. Then she scrolled through a blog post she’d saved, about a diner in Manhattan where everybody pretends to be a Republican, as a joke.
Arlo went back to the empty apartment. Those on the island who weren’t talking about body identification and repatriation took their siestas. She dove into the emptiness of the place like cold water but when she got to her empty bedroom it was too much. She adjusted her black silk wrap over her swimsuit on her way out the door. Down the slope of the garden she saw the bead curtain cinched open with a piece of blue ribbon tied to a nail. The mother was out, complaining to the telecom company from a phone booth on the road to town. The television was on: a bald weatherman sweating in a suit much too heavy for the mid-afternoon heat and the studio lights. The boy was lounging half asleep on the sofa, wearing only shorts. A mosquito buzzed in her ear as she stood over him, taking in the wisps of dark hair under his belly button. She didn’t notice his eyes opening to look back at her, she just found them there. She sat on the edge of the sofa, arranging her shoulders to be looked back over, just so. She couldn’t read him. She laid a finger on those tufts of hair and he let her. She drew it down and he stopped her. He shook his head with his face fixed and neutral, perhaps dreaming. She fled.
On her own bed alone she held her breath until it hurt then allowed a dagger of air in, then held it again. With the internet still out by his own hand, the boy masturbated to synchronised swimming on the TV.
An hour later Arlo pushed her face up from the pillow. She checked the time on her phone and despite herself, wondered if the other two were okay. Standing at the top of the goat trail she could see two fluorescent yellow specks in the water; the tops of snorkels. She sat on the towel watching the snorkels for a few minutes trying to decide whether they could stay vertical if the girls wearing them were dead. Her passivity deserted her. She took off her black wrap and her Sarkozy 2007 baseball cap and waded unflinchingly into the still sea. When the water was up to her armpits she dunked her head and scrubbed her face with her hands to let the salt water rip off any makeup that might betray her.
When her feet first left the sand and she dug at the water with her arms it felt good. She settled into a confident front crawl (Saturday mornings at the pool, badges sewn onto a faded blue towel, all of it had been sleeping somewhere in her). The snorkels were close, a few more beats. One on the right twitched upwards and there was Bea’s face absurdly mashed into the rubber seals of goggles and snorkel. Arlo didn’t have any more ways to behave, no more persona to play. Bea spat out her snorkel peeled off her goggles and looked into the girl who was finally at sea. Arlo trod water and paddled slowly with her hands, looking back at Bea’s face as took the snorkel off and fitted it to her, fiddling with the straps. The water had drained the flush out of her cheeks, soothed the grey fatigue that ringed her brown eyes. Blanched and calm, she looked like a young nun fussing with a noviciate’s wimple. Arlo let Bea stretch the mask over her head, opened her mouth to bite down on the snorkel. Still wordless and with a beneficent smile, Bea pointed down with her index finger.
Mary was a shining mask with tendrils of hair spreading out in all directions, slowly twisting in the current. Her arms were limp below her and waved with the water. The mask tilted up to address Arlo, faltered for a moment, then Mary waved her over in half-time. Arlo wafted the water slow enough to match the new pace of things. The severed bottom half of Bea swung slowly to the surface and was replaced by a thin slice of the back of her shoulders, calves, head, as she lay back in the water and floated. Two of Mary’s fingers tapped the hollow of Arlo’s spine and rested there. With her other hand she pointed straight down to the sea floor.
What was sand at the shore was now pulsing colour. Ten feet below the surface the reef began. Vegetal outcroppings like watermelons cracked open, dancing reeds and feathers blew in a viscous wind. Deeper a honeycomb collaboration of rock and coral obscured wherever the true sea bed was. In every crevice there were flashes of silver fish following one another in disorderly parades to urgent destinations. On top of the reef, the sun danced with the pattern of the water’s surface along a speckled carpet of oranges and greens. A circle of striped fish swam a circuit around a point indicated by Mary’s slack pointing. There, the rock was soft. It breathed. A corner of it curled around a piece of wavering sea grass. An octopus, perhaps the size of an airplane tray table, regarded them right back. Its eye passed from Mary to Arlo. A membrane slid and opened a valve in its head, and slid back again. The sea grass blew slowly to wrap around a tentacle then blew free again. As if dressing up, the octopus drew a perfectly matched shade of straw green like a drape over its skin, then it released it again, fading to speckled grey. The eye flickered back onto Arlo. She smiled.